Bioethics Discussion Blog: Can A Child Sue Physicians for "Wrongful Life"?





Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Can A Child Sue Physicians for "Wrongful Life"?

If a child is born handicapped due to a genetic defect that should have been detected by his mother's doctor, should the child be allowed to sue for damages, claiming "wrongful life", i.e., that the child would have been better off not being born at all?

I posed the question regarding about a child suing the doctor for a "wrongful life" on my now inactive Bioethics Discussion Pages. I got a large number of responses from my visitors between 1997 and 2004. They are displayed below with the oldest at the bottom of the posting.

I would like to hear the view of my current visitors including those who support the "right to life". ..Maurice.

"Should a child who was born handicapped due to a genetic defect that should have been detected by his mother's doctor, be allowed to sue for damages, claiming wrongful life, i.e., that he would have been better off not being born at all?"

Date: Thu, Jul 1, 2004 6:56 {< From: To:
hello, A healthy person cant judge a person who was born with a handicap or defect.(This is my opinon and not advice). Thank you

Date: Sat, Jun 12, 2004 9:22 PM From: To:
As I sit here looking for research for Wrongful Life for my Legal Research class I was disturbed by the issues that we as parent would even consider the thought to choose if our child should be or not be. My stomach has turned in knots for the Fact that if you choose to play you must take responsibility for whatever may happen after you play, (i.e.) Sex is not a toy that most people take it to be it is an act of love and if a child be conceived through the grace of god then through the grace of god shall you find the strength to care for the child that has been born onto thee. Further more the reason that I can say that you find the guidence you need to handle the challenging tasks of takeing care of a child or even a disabled child is I DO IT EVERY DAY AND I HAVE 1 DISSABELD CHILD AND 3 SMALLER CHILDREN. MY first born child at 18 years old and have had 10 years of doing what other people won't do because they don't want to. A child is a bleesing and should always be looked upon as such. And also one of the TEN COMANDMENTS says THOU SHALL NOT KILL......

Date: Tue, Mar 25, 2003 6:22 PM From: To:
Should a child that was born with a birth defect have the right to sue for damages claiming wrongful death? My answer in this case would be no. I realize that this is a very sensitive subject for some and I can sympathize with both sides of the spectrum. I think it is interesting that the common denominator for all the responses is that they are more happy having and loving their child even with defects than not wanting them at all. In my limited understanding of genetic testing, it is the parent’s responsibility to ask their doctor for these tests to be performed. I believe that it also is the parent’s job to be mindful of their own genetic history so that they may inform their physician of possible defects. Genetic testing is a relatively new science, and it is my understanding that there are often skewed results in this tests. I do not feel that this is the physician’s or parents’ fault. It is impossible at this stage for any doctor to ensure parents that their child will be 100% perfect. When two people decide to have children together, they are assuming the risks some possible birth defects. Does this mean they are liable to be sued by their progeny if they are born with a defect? I think not. My belief is that life is the greatest gift that can be given. Someone raised an interesting point that a child that was aborted is not able to sue for wrongful death, so how can a child born with a defect sue anyone for wrongful life?

Jeffrey W. Hilburn II

Date: Tue, Mar 11, 2003 8:18 PM From: To:
Wrongful Life?

Most everyone on the list seems to be pretty much focused on their opinion or their belief about this topic. However, my understanding of the purpose of bioethics is to try to reach a reasoned - not emotional - decision about what options are best out of a selection of potentially all unpleasant choices. The "best" option is generally the one that most closely reflects the societal moral values and does the most good with the least harm. The discussion before us is not supposed to be about whether abortion is right or wrong, or whether the mother SHOULD have the right to abort an impaired child/fetus, or even whether the physician should counsel a couple or single mother to continue the pregnancy OR end the pregnancy. The issue is "Should a child who was born handicapped due to a genetic defect that should have been detected by his mother's doctor, be allowed to sue for damages, claiming wrongful life, i.e., that he would have been better off not being born at all?"

First, it seems to me that the child would not the be person to bring action if one were brought. At the time of the "offense," the child was a non-person with no rights, not even the right to be born if the mother chose otherwise. This is not a slap at the current abortion situation. It is a statement of fact, based upon the law of the land as interpreted by the Supreme Court of the land. Therefore, it would seem that since the child could not have acted on the knowledge of a genetic problem, the child has no standing to claim offense.

Second, genetic testing is not without risk. Acquiring the sample prior to birth carries risks, as another poster on this list noted. Poor outcome from the testing, the doctor is in court. Some alternatives exist, such as some high resolution ultrasound scans, but they cannot reveal all defects. Nor are they perfect. The fetal heart is extremely tiny, especially in the first and second trimesters, which is when the freedom to terminate a pregnancy is greatest. Detecting holes in a very small, beating organ when what you are actually seeing is "sonic shadows" is exceedingly difficult. The same is true of other fetal organs. Given the imprecision of some of these alternative tests, imagine the headlines and the size of the damage award if a healthy child were aborted on the basis of an incorrect test result!

Third, the word "should" in the question is a pivotal issue. "Should have been detected" according to whom? Is this according to widely accepted standards of care for similar circumstances, or is it the opinion of the suing attorney (who has a financial incentive to believe this is true)? Or "should" this have been detected because the mother or father want someone else to meet the cost of caring for a child that is not what they wanted? Or did the circumstance have no clear standard of what "should" have been done? Without a compelling understanding of the validity of the "should have been detected," the whole question is too nebulous to answer. Physicians are not psychic. They cannot divine the correct answer in every case.

Society, as a whole, is not best served by rendering all physicians afraid to do any testing, make any recommendations, or perform ALL potential testing on the off chance of an unsuspected disorder. Clearly, on a strictly Utilitarianism basis, an occasional birth of a baby with undetected defects is far outweighed by a medical reality in which physicians perform the most appropriate tests - and no more - thus spreading the resources of health care most effectively, improving the lives of millions, instead of spending thousands upon thousands of limited health care dollars (lira, francs, pesos, etc.) to exhaust every last possible legal risk for each and every pregnancy. The current climate of litigation in the United States has already brought health care to its knees over just such unreasonable expectations and legal actions. Pregnant women in many areas of the country must travel vast distances to find a physician WILLING to provide prenatal care and deliver the baby, just because of the high risk of being sued for doing - or failing to do - "something" that someone else thinks they "should have done."

Punish true negligence or malpractice or stupidity. However, unplanned outcomes occur even in the best of situations, with the best of care and the most reasoned decision making. If a physician makes a true, sincere, well-founded set of choices which are in keeping with the standard of care, and the patient survives ANYWAY, but doesn't like it, that is not malpractice. Punishing a physician in this situation produces the most harm to the most people by crippling the health care system. Such a decision, while perhaps emotionally and financially gratifying, cannot be viewed as ethical, in my opinion.

No. A child as described in the question should not be allowed to sue for "wrongful life" in the absence of definitive, standards based neglect or malpractice.

Larry Conway, Registered Respiratory Therapist (RRT) Saltillo, Mississippi, Internet student at Kansas University Medical Center

Date: Fri, Feb 28, 2003 9:18 PM From: To:
I do not know if my point makes sense or not, but in the future, where testing for genetic abnormalities prenatally for virtually all hereditary-linked diseases (including heart disease and cancer) will be available, would we consider someone who gets cancer or heart disease a result of wrongful birth or life? would we need to make a choice to let someone live even if they are likely to get cancer or heart disease (for example) in the future and suffer disability? disability at any age produces suffering, and disabling diseases can lead to death. but I can't imagine suing my parents' prenatal doctor for not detecting my high risk of getting stroke or heart disease (if the test should become available), if I am suffering from it. can you?

Date: Fri, Jan 31, 2003 7:47 PM From: To:
On answering this question I think of myself. I was born with Hemophilia and it has changed my lifestyle to what I would consider a "normal life". The doctor is obligated to inform the parents of any genetic defaults, it's his job. This is why doctors are consulted during pregnancy because all parents want a healthy child. The other fact is that parents should keep in mind that they should be knowledgable in their own family genetics as to prepare. My children have an extremely slim chance of being Hemophiliacs; yet, my daughter has 90% chance of being a carrier. Her children if Males would be positive or her female child would continue to pass on this genetic trait. I do not agree in a child sueing his parents for being handicaped. As adults it is their responsibility to assist their child whom is at a disadvantage so he can grow up with a mature perspective and acceptance of how he must live his life.

Date: Tue, Sep 24, 2002 4:51 AM From: To:
Hello, Having looked through a few discussions on your site, I see that most people are decent, thank goodness! :o)

On this subject of 'Wrongful Life' I should like to add my comment as follows please:-

Having discovered a genetic disease within my family, namely 'Huntingtons Disease', after the birth of my two sons, I was very angry with my mother. Had she told me of this, I would have delayed starting a family until I could have undergone thorough tests to ensure I would not be a carrier - in this case I would have had to have the disease myself in order to pass it to any offspring, since this is a 'dominant' gene. However, I have to say that I have my two sons, and I am extremely glad that they are with me. Incidentally, neither is at risk because having undergone tests, I do not carry the defective gene.

Since then, I had a break from childbirth of 15 years. I gave birth to a healthy little boy in 1998, and a healthy little girl in 1999. During the last pregnancy, there was a question that my little girl could have 'Downs Syndrome', so I was offered an amniocentesis. After thoroughly researching the procedure, I opted for a detailed scan at the University College Hospital in London instead. We were worried about the affect of the amniocentesis, both because of the incidence of abortion and the possibility of disfigurement in the womb if the baby happened to move. Our reasons was clear to us, even without much discussion - we were both happy to give birth to a Downs Syndrome baby who had no other significant health problems, such as liver/kidney/heart defects which would affect the child's quality of life. We did not want to give life to a child who would suffer extreme ill health and therefore have little or no pleasure in such a life. Often Downs Syndrome children are extremely happy, and contribute so much to the lives of others that they cannot be denied! We were willing to act on our gut reactions to the situation, and follow our hearts.

The scan told us that is was extremely unlikely that our daughter was a 'Downs' baby. She has very long legs for a start. But, most important to us, she had no defects of major organs that could be discerned by the scan. This meant that whether she was physically and mentally pleasing to others or not, she could be happy within a loving family such as ours.

I believe that situations need to be looked at individually. We were prepared to take responsibility, both for the birth of a Down's Syndrome child and the child's subsequent life, or for aborting a child who would be chronically ill with no or little quality of life.

I am anti-abortion in its usual context because I strongly feel that parental responsibility is supremely important, right from the moment of conception. However, I feel that human ethics can and should be brought to bear in a situation where it would be cruelty to bring life to a child who cannot have any pleasure in it. I feel that the decisions should be made by the parents, where the parents are able, and otherwise by court decision with the advice of the medical practitioner's involved. In this case, medical practitioners should not be held responsible unless they have obviously acted in an unlawful or cruel manner. Jackie Sherlock

Date: Fri, Sep 6, 2002 3:12 AM From: To:
I came across the website while looking up bioethics. I think this question is one of the most difficult anyone can face.

In the case of some genetic defects such as those suffered by the child of Lori Nagle the obvious thing to do seems to be to spare the child from those 5 days of pain and yourself from the lifetime of pain that will follow the loss of a child. If you choose to abort such an ill baby you can at least console yourself that the child never suffered.

Having read all the responses posted here I can see that many feel that people are likely to sue because they didn't have their "Perfect Child". I think that these people are missing the point. The point is that these people were not given the information that would have allowed them to make such a difficult decision. It is not about having a "perfect child" it is about the fear a parent must feel when their child is seriously ill, and the emotional toll that caring for such a child would take. I am a mother myself and know how hard it is to raise perfectly healthy children, I can't imagine the heartache I would go through if my children had been born with Down's Syndrome or Autism. Not because of how it would affect my life (although that is something that everyone must consider) but because I would be worrying how my child would manage when I wasn't there, how they would make it in this uncaring world. I would worry that I'm not financially or emotionally equipped to provide the extra care that a disabled child would require. In these cases, the argument that every child is a gift from God and we should be grateful for every child born does not stand up. If I can't provide the proper care and support for a child who needs it then surely it is less damaging not to bring the child into the world in the first place. If I were to have the baby and then give it up for a adoption, would this be less cruel than aborting it? Letting my child go through life thinking that I didn't love it because of something it couldn't change? When in fact I would have given it up because I didn't feel that I could provide the amount of care it would need. Just thinking about it makes me sad.

It is a very tricky problem which I don't think people will ever agree on, but I feel that people should be given all the information available on the health of their unborn child so they can make an informed decision based on their own beliefs and circumstances. For a doctor to miss something that would normally show up in routine tests is negligent. For a doctor to deliberately withhold this information is outrageous.

Date: Sat, Aug 31, 2002 12:39 PM From: To:
Why is the child, who thinks that he should not have been born at all, not suing his own parents? That is where the defect originated. Perhaps the doctor could have done genetic testing and known about the problems in the fetal stage, but the parents could have requested genetic testing and known about the possibility of problems before conception. The doctor did not cause the problems and tests are not always accurate anyhow. Also, it seems an injustice to allow a child to sue for wrongful life when there is no recourse for a child who is aborted to sue for wrongful death.

Michael Bertolli

Date: Thu, Aug 1, 2002 8:52 AM From: To:
I just stumbled upon this website because I was looking for a way to do what some of these people find "Horrible". I want to sue my DR because my baby who was born July 12th died July 17th due to the simple fact that the person giving me my ultrasounds at 5 months and 6 months didnt see that his heart was on the wrong side of his chest and backwards and had 3 major holes in it How can something like this be missed? They are trained to look for these things and they had 2 chances to find it. My son was born with Trisomy 18, it is a fatal disease. He was 4 weeks early and was born not breathing. Had we known BEFORE we gave birth, we would of decided to not bring him back to life. But instead, I had to suffer the pain of delivering him thinking I was having a normal healty baby boy, then to get a slap in the face like this, also, we had to sit in the Neo Natal Unit for 5 days, day in and day out, watching out baby lay there hooked up to all those machines, I couldnt hold my baby, I couldnt feed my baby. All I could do was touch his hand !! And I am not sure you are familiar with this disease or not but, almost all babies born with this die within the first week of life, some make it for a month or so. But my point is this.. Since most of these babies die so early, they can never tell you if they are in pain, so who am I to prolong that if they are? I would give ANYTHING to have my baby with me right now, and its only been a few weeks. But I know he is better where he is at right now. I just wish I could of known before I had him so those 5 days I did have with him werent filled with saddness or questions of WHY??? They could of been strickly filled with LOVE !!!! As for suing for millions of dollars, I dont want the money, All the money in the world wont bring back my baby Austin. What we want is to find out WHY it wasnt picked up so we could of made the decision WE thought would of been the right one. And also to make all testings mandatory during pregnancy. They test you for Gestational Diabetes at every visit without asking you if you want it, so why cant they do these tests also? We just want to save someone else from having to go through this, and everyone out there who says this is not right, Until you have to sit there in the NICU with your newborn knowing he will never make it home, THEN YOU CAN TALK TO ME !!

Lori Nagle

Date: Wed, Mar 27, 2002 3:26 PM From: To:
Well, what can we expect in a country that legally allows parents to decide if their child lives or dies up to birth? What next? Like Hitler we can kill these children at birth to prevent these lawsuits. Or a child that develops a disability after birth..well, let's just kill them, too.

The thought that any parent can go to court and argue that they were denied the ability to kill their child is disgusting. And on top of that, they want money. How incomprehensibly sick! I refuse to argue about the quality of life of a disabled person. That's not my call. I myself am not disabled, but I will argue that it's not my choice to take that person's life away. Talking about how precious disabled children are is irrelevant. A Child is A Child. A human and human. This is saying that a disabled child is not as valuable as a 'normal' child. Who is anyone to decide how good my life is?

Am I the only one scared to go to sleep in this country? One more thing:

These parents that sue because they wish there children weren't born...? They get to keep the child they would have killed? That's injustice. Deborah Campano sued her doctor because her son was born with Down Syndrome. She won. She has money and she has a child. These parents that emotionally scar their children publicly and God knows how else should give those 'burdens' those 'monsters' away to human beings with a conscience who will give them the love they're entitled to as human beings.

Date: Sat, Jul 28, 2001 4:14 AM From: To:
Who is going to pay for this girls plastic surgeory ? If her mother would have had the option she would have died to save this from happening !!! Herself having lived through 28 facial surgeries prior to the age of 15 when she finnally said she had enough & has endured a life of abuse & descrimination because of a birth defect!!! Is it really fair to say the doctor should have spend an extra minute at one of the 20+ prenatal appointments to figure out that this baby was breached throughout the pregnancy causing complications leading up to a facial defect??? How about the altrasound that was denied because the doctor said everything seems to be alright & we only allow them when there could be problems. The baby was breached at that point & I the father being gulable, not educated in fetal position thought the head was the butt, am suffering or wanting to blame somebody. Who is going to pay for the plastic surgeory because where we live in British Columbia, Canada this will be elective by the time she has grown big enough to have it done??? I am really POed that with an ultrasound this could have been not necessary!!! Does anybody Know any Good Lawyers & if so send me a brief note please. Yours Trully.

Date: Wed, Jun 13, 2001 10:33 AM From: To:
I think that anyone (mother or father) who would even consider suing a doctor because of some genetic defect is "Insane"!! What would that parent have done previous to being able to have the genetic testing done? Besides, a handicapped child is a "Gift From God" (in my opinion). The child was supposedly created from love and should be given nothing but love - It's NOT HIS FAULT. Sometimes these children can live a long and meaningful life. Just because there is some type of "genetic defect" does not mean that that child won't be smart or be able to make a place in the world for himself. Suing the doctor won't change the genetics of the child and make him/her perfect, will it?

In my case, my son was born normal and due to a bad vaccination (at 4.5mos old) is now mentally 8-18 months old in a 20 year old body. I thank God every day that he is alive. He has been a blessing and I have learned much from him. I could have sued, but at what cost? What would it have accomplished? Would it have brought my "normal" child back? Bottom Line: HE IS MY SON, given to me by God. I love and cherish him and always will. By the way, his 7 year old brother thinks he is really neat.

Date: Mon, May 28, 2001 4:38 PM From: To:
I was researching a homework assignment for Healthcare Law on the issue of Wrongful Birth and Wrongful Life when I came upon this site. I felt compelled to write, if not for myself, then to defend the mothers, fathers and guardians of the children that are born so severely defected, both mentally and physically. If the doctor had any prior knowledge that these birth defects were present, he or she had every right to inform the parents of this possibility. Then and only then can the parents make an informed decision as to whether or not to abort. This should in no way be a judgment call against the parents, as to whether or not they love their children; or whether the defected child has no right to live. It is for the love of their children that they would not want to see them going through endless days and nights of pain. And what about their lives, who is there to help these poor parents? Are this so higher than God moral human beings who are casting the first stone against these parents going to be there morning, noon and night? Are they sitting in the emergency a million different nights watching a helpless child suffer? Yes, children and parents alike should have the legal right to seek damages against the negligent physicians that could have prevented this. No, it is not going to make the child better, but it will help with the expenses of raising and caring for a child with multiple disabilities. Until someone walks in the shoes of these parents they should hold on to there stones and through them somewhere for a better cause.

Date: Tue, Feb 20, 2001 12:28 AM From: To:
I would like to make a distinction here. From what I have read... it sounds like many of the posts are confusing the idea of "wrongful life" and the morality of abortion. I am not an advocate of abortion. However, in the state where I live, abortion is legal up to 24 weeks. The discussion here is not whether or not it is right to terminate a pregnancy. I already know that is my legal right to make that choice, reguardless of what anyone else thinks or has to say about it. The discussion concerning "wrongful life" deals with the issue that it is already the legal right of the mother to decide to terminate a pregnancy. Prenatal care is intended to monitor the health of the mother and the unborn child. If a doctor fails to inform the parents of results of a prenatal test that reveals abnormalities, it directly interferes with the parent's legal right to decide to terminate that pregnancy. This is medical malpractice. The term itself, "wrongful life" seems to distort this fact. I have a son who is severely physically and mentally damaged. I resent the comments reguarding parent's who don't love their children "because they aren't perfect". The term "handicapped" covers a range from down syndrome to cerebral palsey, to ADD, to autism, to a person missing their little finger. Where do we come to a conclusion reguarding the quality of life of a person? I'm the first to say, we can't. I do love my son. However, if given the opportunity, I certainly would have spared him every bit of pain his little body has endured. It seems to be a natural reaction for a parent to want to prevent the pain of their child. It isn't lack of love, or wishing that child simply had not been born. Even though that is what it might seem, it is much deeper and complex than that. I don't think a person who has not experienced it, could have full perspective on the issue. My son's brain was so severely damaged... all that remained was the brain stem. I don't claim to begin to "rate" the quality of someone else's life. I only know that the abortion law states that it's my right to decide to continue or end my pregnancy.

Date: Wed, Feb 14, 2001 1:32 PM From: To:
Every person has a right to life even though the child is born with a birth defect that could've and or should've been detected through an amniocentesis or other types of bloodwork does not mean even though most people would like to sue over the issue of wrongful life that the child in later years could not have a normal life with a little extra love and support from his or her family and friends or otherwise they would be able to make it just fine.

Sincerely, Kelli Renee Musgrave

Date: Mon, Feb 5, 2001 9:57 AM From: To:
As to the last posting: I must answer. You have no right to say that I do not love my child just because I wish she didnt have to endure the multiple operations and treatments she goes through . I would give my own life to let her have a "normal" life. How can this person say she knows anything about what my family has endured? Just because she has cousins that are disabled? At the end of the day, you still go home to your own house and leave the diabilities at someone elses home. Being close to a disability is not the same as a disability in your home. I have never wished my child dead!

Date: Fri, Oct 27, 2000 6:59 AM From: To:
If you mean a child independently bringing up a lawsuit, that is another matter entirely. However, if you mean the parents bringing the lawsuit or suing on behalf of the child, that seems to be utterly heartless. What a cruel thing to tell your child that you wish that he or she had never been born! In all these cases, the mother or father claim to love their child. But I have to say I doubt that they do love their child. My aunt and uncle have two disabled children- one slightly autistic and one downs syndrome. They are not perfect-but then again who is? We all love them and never once have wished them dead. If parents feel that their child is wrongfully born-maybe they should let them be adopted by parents who do love them. They obviously do not.

Date: Fri, Oct 6, 2000 5:29 PM From: To:
My comment to this question is really a short story. When I was pregnant, the drs told us our baby had many rare abnormalities and we needed to consider ending the pregnancy. We did the unthinkable! We chose to end the pregnancy. After we notified the dr, he wanted to repeat some tests because so few babies had ever had these abnormalities before. Matter of fact, no one had ever seen these anomalies so early in pregnancy. Needless to say, all of a sudden, there was nothing wrong with our child anymore. We had our precious baby and she was born with all the problems he had said there was in the beginning. Now what do we do? He is even using all of our ultrasound and MRI films in the teaching hospital. The hospital has even sued us to pay for the bills that I refuse to pay. So, those of you who say that it is soooo wrong to sue the dr for wrongful life, in my opinion, are wrong. If there was another way to term it, I would. Fact remains, I had to quit my job to take care of my child and she will require life-long physical and emotional help. All I ever asked the hospital for, was to help provide for her care. The doctor will not even speak to us. Not by letter or phone. So, now what? He saw the problems then took it back. He has written papers in the American Medical Journal about diagnosing these problems and has gained recognition in the medical community, at our expense!

Date: Thu, Sep 21, 2000 4:04 PM From: To:
If our court systems were to set a precedence by awarding damages to people suing under such a ridiculous claim as "Wrongful Life," where would it stop? Not all cases would be as cut and dry as the mother suing her obstetrician for failing to inform her of her neonate suffering from something as horrible as hydrocephalus. All too soon our courts would be filled to the brim with people seeking money because they were born with one arm, a cleft palate, or Down's Syndrome. Who are we, as fallible human beings, to claim we have the answer to whether or not a person is better off not being born? There are those who live a healthy 30 years of life, only to be involved in a debilitating accident, that take their own life rather than having to suffer the rest of it confined to a wheel chair. And then there are those among us who simply overcome. We look at ourselves and our handicaps every day, and it does not deter us from living. As a 24 year old woman who has never taken a step without some form of prosthesis, I can tell you that I am certainly NOT better off dead. And for JDtaylor, who stated his belief that "when genetic mutations are found existent in a fetus, abortion should be an option," I have this to say: We are human beings, JD. We are not puppies to be culled from a litter to further a breed standard. When two people set out to start a family, they should understand the risks involved. Maybe the child you conceive will never walk on their own, maybe they will never offer a glance of recognition to you, but never forget that they are your child. Having a family is nothing like fishing. It's reprehensible for a person to take the attitude that you can just keep "tossin' em back" until you get the kind you want. Physical perfection is no guarantee of happiness in life. There didn't seem to be anything physically wrong with the shooters at Columbine High School.

Date: Fri, Aug 4, 2000 3:18 PM From: To:
I was reviewing web sites for a college library when I was referred to the bio-ethics site by a professor. I was mesmerized by the thoughtful, complex discussions, and couldn't resist commenting on the "wrongful life" discussion. Having been the mother of teenagers, I must say that I heard "I would have been better off if I'd never been born" more than once. Also, having been treated for clinical depression, I've felt that way myself once or twice. I cannot imagine what it would be like to be born with severe, debilitating, painful disabilities--wishing for nonexistence is one logical outcome. But since birth conditions arise from a number of sources (genetic makeup, medical malpractice, lack of responsible parenting, drugs, and probably just quirky nature), I have to think that the culpability for the defect depends upon its source. Furthermore, the child always has the right to sue, but the final arbiter (judge, jury, ombudsman)decides the merits of the case. The final decision would take many factors into consideration. But death is not an option.

Date: Mon, Jun 19, 2000 7:12 PM From: To:
The reason why I am writing, is because I have read through the responses to this question, and feel that some of them portray a misunderstanding to the initial question. Also, as a mother who has personal experience with this topic, maybe I can offer another perspective. The day my son was born was the most shocking, painful day I could ever imagine. I thought I had received good prenatal care throughout my pregnancy. My husband and I knew to expect a baby boy, and we looked forward to our new family. The term "handicapped" is a label. One that a large variety of people can be placed in to. My son was born with a condition called hydrocephalus. Throughout my entire pregnancy, his brain was being smashed. When he was born, his head was full of fluid, instead of brain tissue. His diagnosis was that he would live out however long his life might be, as a "vegetable". Now, I am not an advocate of abortion. Nor do I claim to know when to say that another person's life is not worth living. I do know the pain I have watched my son endure. I know that he is far from being "just handicapped". (not that I am diminishing anybody... that is not my intention) I do know... that given the choice, had I known the kind of damage that was happening to my son... I would have terminated my pregnancy. I can't deny that is somewhat selfish thinking. I only know that I would have saved him his pain, given the choice that I feel was morally, and legally, mine.

Date: Fri, Mar 24, 2000 1:28 PM From: To:
My feelings are that everyone should have a chance to live even if they are born with the misfortune of a handicap. The fact that they have a disability does not make them less of a person than anyone else. They still have the power to enjoy life and look past their drawbacks in order to accomplish personal goals. Just because a person is disabled does not mean that they would be better off not being born. In fact, many handicapped people probably do not think that at all. They look past their disability and strive to do the best they can. I do not think that they should be allowed to sue for damages because even if their handicap was detected, I do not feel that it is the doctor's or anyone else's right to decide that they would be better off dead. It is only the person's decision who has the disability, and they obviously cannot make that decision until later in life. If they are truly unhappy and feel that they would be better off dead later on in life then they can take care of it themselves. This sounds cruel, but at least it would be their decision and not the act of murder decided by someone else.

Date: Tue, Mar 21, 2000 11:13 PM From: To:
Suing for wrongful life is as silly as suing Mc Donald's for falling off a toilet seat. If a child were to bring a lawsuit against his mother's doctor for wrongful life, this would imply that there is not much wrong with the child's intellectual capability. Furthermore, whether the doctor genuinely did not dectect the genetic defect, or whether the doctor did detect the defect and witheld the information from the parents, the ultimate decision to bring the child to term would have been the decision of the parents, not the child. The child should perhaps have the right to sue his *parents* for damages, provided they were armed with proper information about the genetic flaw and its implications, yet chose life for the child anyway, but it's a frivolous claim at best, and as well founded as being able to sue one's doctors for not altering the outcome of one's sex, had one preferred to be born the opposite gender, or born from a parent who had AIDS.

Date: Tue, Mar 21, 2000 4:33 PM From: To:
I agree with Carmen Jaeger's response. I don't see how suing a doctor for money could make up for such a horrible life that you feel that you should never have been born. I certainly feel for those who are less fortunate because of such a genetic defect or any other birth defect, but where would the line be drawn? What would constitute a defect so terrible that a person should not have been born? To me this sounds like another way to extort money from someone doing his or her job to the best of his abilities.

Furthermore, I agree with the response that said that we have no guarantees in life. My personal belief is that abortion is morally objectionable and prohibited in the Hippocratic Oath, but as the law is now it is legal. To me the term "Wrongful Life" is a contradiction; God wanted this child to be born. This seems to be more a question of ethics than blame.

Ken Byrd

Date: Sun, Mar 19, 2000 8:16 PM From: To:
Whether one feels it is for the better or not, advances in genetics will gradually provide physicians with more and more knowledge of what birth defects a family may encounter with their newborn. I personally feel that these advances cannot be viewed in anything but a positive light. Ideally, I would like to see these genetic mutations corrected through methods of prenatal gene therapy. I think this will become a reality as more research is done on how to perform gene therapy. At the present, however, I believe families should have the right to have tests done to detect genetic disorders. If they are found, abortion should be an option. I realize that the Hippocritic Oath prohibits abortion, but the knowledge we now have of genetic mutations was nonexistent at the time of its writing. Yet, the physician should not be at fault if birth defects are discovered after the child is born. Medicine is, by no means, an exact science, and physicians cannot be held accountable, or sued, for all problems that occur.

-Jonathan Taylor, Univ. of South Carolina

Date: Sun, Mar 19, 4:47 PM From: To:
This question is absolutely absurd and I am sorry that we live in a day and time that the courts have come to this. Is there a "wrongful life"? Of course not. The being in charge of granting life can do NO wrong. We should learn to be content with what we are given that we cannot change and to try to improve the things we can. Maybe some would be better off without ever being born. They would not be born into a society that makes issues and questions as shallow as this! On the defense of someone who has been "wrongfully" born into something in which life would be the worse choice between it and death, how would they ever know life was the most unfavorable choice unless they were given the chance to live it?

Date: Sat, Mar 18, 2000 9:23 AM From: To:
Introducing cases as such into our legal system opens the courts up for serious struggle. Every patient who visits a doctor expects to be made aware of the important things going on inside their bodies. The point of going to a doctor is to check-up on health, etc. In legal terms, I would have to say that people should be allowed to sue for damages in such a case. There are definitely defects, etc. that are evident in the many tests that are run on an expectant mother. HOWEVER, allowing this to be so is also giving and encouraging the doctors to give abortion as an alternative. That, in my opinion, is what we do not want to happen. In the days when abortion was much less common, before there was constantly talk about abortive techniques, etc. in the media, it seemed to the naive citizen that families were simply dealing with the defects to the best of their abilities, loving the child just the same. Lately, as in within the last fifty years or so, there is more talk about dealing with the defected child, as in insurance concerns and the quality of life. Some people are probably thinking at this point that I am denying how the child feels, and how difficult life can be for them- but I'm not. I simply strongly believe that once we bring in the situation where humans are playing God, and deciding who and what should enter this earth, then we've got problems. The balance of human power is stretched, never to return to stable grounds. I, as most patients would I assume, would expect to be told of any disturbances in my pregnancy that are evident in checkups because I expect my doctor to inform me of all she knows. However, if my doctor does not catch the defect, and therefore is not aware of it herself, then there is possibly some grounds for legal action. Doctors/Surgeons/Radiologists, etc. are trained to acknowledge things that we as "common people" are not aware of, and we are therefore able to hold them accountable for realizing the defect.

Date: Wed, Feb 23, 2000 7:10 PM From: To:
Doktor Mo, I am from Deuel High School and I have just posted a WebQuest website about wrongful birth. I feel that wrongful birth lawsuits are wrong. Upon filling a lawsuit about wrongful birth, I feel, is just like saying you don't want your child. I know many people who can't get pregnant and would be happy with any child they can get. Sure the children are dependent on their parents, but they are your children. You should love them and take care of them just like you would do with any child. I don't think there is any need for wrongful birth lawsuits and I don't think it should be the doctor's fault. It is up to you whether or not you want to test if your child in the womb has any physical conditions, but that should be discussed with your doctor. Wrongful lawsuits need to be kept out of the already busy court rooms, because I think wrongful birth lawsuits are a waste of time. Sincerely,

Carmen Jaeger

P.S. If you want to contact me, e-mail me at Thank you.

Date: Mon, May 24, 1999 7:23 PM From: To:
Supposedly in the 1980 case 'Curlander v. Bio-Science Laboratories' a California appellate court ruled that a child with a genetic defect could bring a "wrongful life" suit against her parents for not undergoing prenatal screening and aborting her.

Date: Wed, Mar 3, 1999 10:56 AM From: To:
What if a baby is born extremely premature and is kept alive -- parents being told "everything will be okay" but in fact, the child has severe brain injuries? Doctor called, baby hypoxic for hours, doctor doesn't come because he expects the baby to die, but baby doesn't die. Parents told "everything will be okay."

Guess what? Everything is not okay.

Date: Sat, Feb 13, 1999 6:48 PM From: To:
Hello I was responding to your page. What if the doctor knows you were infected with a virus while pregnant? What is the standard of care for this?

What if at 20.5 weeks of pregnancy the doctor writes the ventricles are at uppper limits of normal but doesn't tell you (parents) or re-test??

This is exactly what happened to me. My son was born severly disabled. He is 7 now doesn't walk, talk develomentally 7 months old. He is legally blind, feeding tube, seizures, chronic constipation, central apnea (on monitor) etc. etc.

My husband and I told the doctor we wanted to know if anything was wrong ( at the best he could tell) he told us everything was fine. We feel that the doctor withheld very important information that my husband and I needed to discuss. How could the doctor get away with that? Shouldn't they tell you?

Thanks, Michele

Date: Wed, May 20, 1998 12:34 PM From: To:
I ran across this site while searching for information on "wrongful life/birth" cases and felt I had to respond. Since abortionists believe that life does not begin at conception but at birth, how can these same people want to defend the right of the fetus (remember, not a real person) to be born or not? The same applies to the mother... how can you defend her right to protect something that is not yet someone?! Is it just me or does that seem a bit contradictory? In reference to the doctor's liability, perhaps running the standard tests and informing the parents are issues. However, the doctor should not be required to offer abortion as an option. When it comes to accountability, he is ultimately accountable to God. You can try to leave Him out of this, but He will always be here. When man's knowledge is not balanced with God's wisdom, the result is confusion. Such is "wrongful life". I believe God is the author of life, therefore life can't be wrong. Isn't it sad that our society has developed the thought process, "I deserve the best, and if I don't get it, it's somebody else's fault"? Let's face it, folks. We don't DESERVE anything! Life is NOT fair and there are no guarantees! Who's going to guarantee you and I (normal people with no birth defects) that in the next minute we won't become victims of some crippling disease? Will there always be someone else to blame and to sue for damages? Will someone else always be responsible for "depriving us a real opportunity to avoid suffering"? What's next? If "avoiding suffering" and quality of life are the issues, what's the difference if we 86 someone before or after birth? I'm not an attorney (that's probably obvious), but if I was...

Anyway, here's your feedback.


Date: Wed, Apr 22, 1998 1:19 PM From: To:
There are too many lawsuits in this country already, and a large number of ludicrous lawsuits are actually won. The option to sue any medical professional in this case should not be outlawed, but the child doesn't need to be encouraged to sue, either. If it is proven that medical/genetic tests available were not performed, and the child is still in the care of his or her parents, then the parents should have the option to file suit, but if the parents were informed of the possibility or probabibility of genetic defect or disease, and they chose to have the child, they really don't have a case.

Date: Sat, Apr 11, 1998 4:50 PM From: To:

I am a first year law student, and am currently writing a appelate brief on this exact issue. The whole issue seems to turn on whether the infant has sustained an injury at the hands of a negligent docter. Well, how do we want to define injury? Clearly there is no injury in just being born. In fact, the child never had a right to be born in the first place. However, if a health care provider negligently takes away the expectant mother's right to protect her infants interests, that is an actionable injury. In other words, "but for" the docter's negligent conduct, the mother would have protected the childs interest by having an abortion. Typically, at least in the jurisdictions that allow "wrongful life", the infant need show through evidence that she would have in fact been aborted had the mother been properly informed by the docter. The childs complain is not that she is born defectinve, but that the doctor's conduct deprived her the existant and real opportuinty to avois sufering and be aborted.

One more thing, most states have "wrongful birth" acts. This is essentially the parents version of wrongful birth. In those statutes, the child is always defined as being a legally existant person. This not a moral or metaphysical stance, it is only importnat for the purposes of establishing the legal elemnts needed to find negligence. Under negligence, the first thing to do is determine if the doctor owed a duty. This is clear, as she will be held to a reasonable professional standard of care. This duty is obviosly owed to the expectant mother. Also, as people typically get amnio tests to determine the genetic integrity of the unborn child, it is extremmly foreseeable that a improperly conducted test will gravely effect the childs opportuinty to avoid suffering from the ailment. In other words, wrongful birth acts tend to provide the legal basis to establish negligence, and can be extened to cover the childs "wrongful birth" cause. After all, it would be illogical to allow the parents to recover and not allow the DIRECT victem of the doctor's negligence to be redressed for her injuries.

In closing, for legal purposes, it is not prudent to reduce the infants injury into a philosophical debate about existance vs. nonexistance. That was rendered academic when the doctor screwed up the test. What is important is that if we wish to promote the social benefits of prenatal care, genetic counseling, etc..we also extend the legal protection to cover those classes of individuals (Parents and the unborn), to the same standard that all members of society are protected by.

Thanks, I enjoyed reading your posts, it has helped me work through my position. Any feedback would be great.


Date: Thu, Mar 19, 1998 7:42 AM From: To:
Who is to decide what really is wrongful life? How could someone want to take the life of their unborn child just because the child will not be born in perfect health? Some people aren't even able to have children, and if they could, they would be overwelmed with joy to have a baby whether he or she was in perfect health - no birth defects - or not. If a child is born with down syndrome, that child has a right to live a "normal" and happy life. Abortion is wrong, so why would killing a fetus with down syndrome be right? Sure the child may have difficulties in life, but who doesn't. Children with disabilities are beautiful people who have a lot of joy to offer to their parent's lives, so why would we want to kill them? Killing a fetus is just like killing a person. Murder is wrong. Children are a blessing from God, and we should not destroy His beautiful gift to us!!!

Date: Fri, Dec 19, 1997 12:31 PM From: To:
I believe that the mother and/or child should at least be able to sue for the negligence of the doctor (I'm not an attorney but this seems reasonable to me). I don't think we can touch the issue of whether or not he would have been better off not being born. If he is so handicapped that he cannot articulate what he feels/how he thinks, how can we know if he is satisfied with his life? And, the only other person "qualified" to make that decision, would be the mother (or father, if he was involved) as she is the one who has to bear the "burden" (I use that term very loosely, i.e., be responsible) of caring for the child, paying expenses, etc. What is life worth? Is anything required of a person to "deserve being born?" I don't know. I think that's an individual decision. But, the doctor should be liable for his mistake, especially if it was something that could have been corrected in utero (you'd really have a good case for negligence then!).

This is my first visit and response on these discussion boards. Thanks for hosting it...I'm finding it very interesting.

Natalie Peck

Date: Thu, Oct 16, 1997 4:16 AM From: (hans g engel) To:
In these days, when the world's greatest problem is overpopulation, permitting the birth of an infant known to be seriously defective is probably counter to optimal public policy and cruel to the prospective parents. There may be a few parents who are willing to provide the endless love and dedication required to raise a severely handicapped child, but if the parents would have chosen not to sacrifice much of their own lives to care for such an infant knowing the outcome of their pregnancy and had no personal religious objections to abortions, they should be able to sue a physician who (a) fails to run the tests required to determine such an outcome, (b) misinterprets the test results, (c) negligently fails to inform the parents of the test results at the proper time or (d) fails to inform them because of his/her personal religious or moral beliefs.

Date: Wed, Oct 8, 1997 From: To:
This is perhaps the premire example of a paradoxical ethical dilemma. A few yars ago, an Israeli woman consulted her doctor as to the safety of conceiving the child she was carrying. The fetus was at risk for a very serious genetic defect. The doctor gave the woman false assurances that the child would indeed be born healthy. The child was subsequently born with the serious genetic defect that rendered him psychologicaly and physically abnormal to a supposedly horrifying degree.

The mother, on behalf of herself and her child, sued the doctor for damages. The district court recognized the mother's standing, but not the child's. The doctor appealed to the Supreme Court of Israel against the first decision, and the mother appealed against the second decision. The courts unanimously overruled the doctor's appeal, and in a majority decision, accepted the child's appeal.

Torts, or harms, are universially defined as some sort of worsening in the condition of an already existing person. Damages are usually sought for the difference between a person's condition before a certain harm was done vs. after the harm. But in wrongful life cases, the only comparison (maybe) to the condition of a person before a harm was done is nonexistence. Is there a value that can be attachted to nonexistence to serve as a comparison to being harmed? Can we even understand nonexistence?

It is not simply a matter of not having or not utilizing the proper epistemic tools. Rather, it is simply that there is nothing to understand. Not only is nonexistence a "state" that can not be given value, it is a "state" that cannot even be attributed to a subject of any kind. Death at least has this attribute - it has happened to somebody. If the plaitiff in the Israeli case had not been conceived, would the boy be better off? It is hard to answer affirmatively.

So, it seems that, to answer the exact question - would the child have been better off not being born - the answer would have to be: no. However, the other question that is alluded to is: can a child sue for damages if being born with defects is worse than being born without a certain defect? In the above case, the child is either born with a serious defect, or not born at all. The only comparison to the child's wronged life is nonexistence. The real queston is not whether a person has a right to be born, but does a person have a right to be born healthy?

In this scenario, a child now has a comparison to a healthy life and can(?) sue for compensation on these grounds. Some judges have used this tactic in some wrongful life cases even where the only actual alternative to being born with a defect was nonexistence. A healthy life, not nonexistence, is the alternative to the child's condition.

In actual wrongful life cases, birth in handicap is absolutely necessary - the alternative is not to be born - but being born is not the complaint. Being born handicapped is the real complaint. Intuitively, we feel that a wrong was certainly done, and judges are usually ready to lay responsibility on the doctor(s) involved. However, this is a double-edged sword as we can easily get caught in the slippery-slope. That is, judges are also aware of the potential abuses of such claims. Can a child, suing for a right to a healthy life, claim illegitimacy as a "defect"? Or being born underweight; with a low I.Q.; or into a polluted and crime-ridden world?

Some hard quesitons will be: how do you define "harm" or an injury vs. simply a denial of certain "better" conditions for the future life of the child? As medical and scientific technologies advance - i.e., cloning - will children be suing for having been born "y" instead of "x"?

In closing, it seems that wrongful life cases are blocked by two conditions: on the one hand, there is a valuelessness of nonexistence, and on the other, is the fact that its value (if it does have value) cannot be attached to an individual person - there simply isn't a person to attach the value to. Anyway, sorry for being so long winded, but it's hard to limit a response to just a short paragraph. If you agree or disagree or just have some ideas, PLEASE mail me at:

Thanks for reading this response! Michael R. Miller, University of Alabama at Birmingham.

Date: Wed, Oct 8, 1997 3:22 PM From: To:
I think that even though the mother and father of this child weren't aware of the handicapp that their unborn child had had, that no matter what they should love the child regardless, and saying that a human being isn't worth being born is kind of sick.



At Tuesday, March 21, 2006 8:19:00 PM, Anonymous Moof said...

Snared! It's hard to pass up a subject like this.

I particularly like the answer by Michael Bertolli:

Why is the child, who thinks that he should not have been born at all, not suing his own parents? That is where the defect originated. Perhaps the doctor could have done genetic testing and known about the problems in the fetal stage, but the parents could have requested genetic testing and known about the possibility of problems before conception. The doctor did not cause the problems and tests are not always accurate anyhow. Also, it seems an injustice to allow a child to sue for wrongful life when there is no recourse for a child who is aborted to sue for wrongful death.

Dr. Bernstein, I'm not sure that I think that physicians should be able to be sued at all, never mind for something which seems as opportunist as "wrongful life!"

Yes, I believe that there should be consequences for physicians who are flagrantly negligent or deliberately harmful, and remunerations for patients who suffer from the negligence or the harm ... but I don't think that civil court is where that sort of thing should be handled.

The very idea of "wrongful life" seems so contrived that it's hard for me to consider it seriously. I hear "wrongful life" and I think "courtroom lottery!"

I believe that most physicians do the best they can at any given moment, in any given situation. Mistakes happen ... and unforseen, unpredicable circumstances arise. They're part of life. When they happen, we deal with them.

The act of procreation has consequences, and is not merely entertainment for a long winter night. The consequences are sometimes the creation of another human life.

That human life never chooses to be there of its own accord, and is, from the moment of conception, dependent on mercies of those who gave it its spark. Furthermore, the new life is never perfect. There is always something which will arise sooner or later, which will cause discomfort or grief either to the new creature, or to its creators. Who's going to judge where to draw the line - this life should have been able to be prevented because of severe depression later in life ... or because of malignant hypertension in mid-life ... who's going to judge?

Lawyers and courts are the least suited of all for dealing with these issues.

At Tuesday, March 21, 2006 8:48:00 PM, Blogger Maurice Bernstein, M.D. said...

Thanks Moof for your comments. I wanted to also make sure our visitors are aware of the difference between "wrongful life" and a suit based on the argument of "wrongful birth".

As I understand the difference, “wrongful birth” is a suit brought by the parents against the physician when the birth was unwanted by the parents and produced an unwanted financial and emotional burden to the parents. The reason the birth was unwanted was that an attempt at abortion failed or the child was born with a handicap that should have been diagnosed during the pregnancy which would have given the mother a chance to have an abortion if she was made aware of the condition. The money obtained in a successful suit would go to the parents.

In the case of the “wrongful life” it is the child who initiates the law suit against the physician on the basis of the child’s claim of damage by being born and therefore should be compensated for such damage. Apparently the child may sue even the parents. In the case of “wrongful life” it is the child who receives the money in a successful suit.

As I understand it, in the United States, far more jurisdictions support a suit for “wrongful birth” than for “wrongful life”. ..Maurice.

At Wednesday, March 22, 2006 10:02:00 AM, Anonymous Moof said...

Dr. Bernstein, thank you for making that distinction. As you can see from my comment, I was not aware of the difference.

I'm afraid that knowing the difference hasn't really changed the bottom line for me. With a bit of self-honesty, we have to admit that we're all "handicapped" in some form and to some degree ... and many thinking, reasoning human beings go through moments of wondering if their lives are worth living, sometimes due to physical or psychological problems.

Learning to find a way around our limitations - whether they're emotional or physical is what's necessary. Suing a physician is not going to solve anything ... for that matter, nor would suing one's parents!

That's all about money ... and maybe a bit of revenge.

If there were to be lawsuits, they should be against those who tout lawsuits as a solution to our problems, and so enable people to limit themselves, and blame others for their inability (refusal?) to accept and make the best of what they have.

At Saturday, April 08, 2006 4:27:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have plenty of thoughts on this, but first and foremost I think one could look at this question as nonsensical, because a doctor cannot terminate a pregnancy of his own accord. That would be murder, or at least, manslaughter (if the fetus is not legally gtanted the dignity of being referred to as a human being). The question should more adequately be, "Can a child sue his PARENTS for not finding a physician willing to abort if the child is miserable in his/her disabilit(ies)?"

At Friday, May 05, 2006 5:24:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't think that someone should have the right to sue someone just because that person decided to let them live. That's just wrong, come on, you get with your life and stop focusing on the negative, its possible to find happiness even if your handicapped.

At Monday, October 06, 2008 6:35:00 AM, Anonymous kayla said...

I dont think a person can judge weather that should of happened or not, i think that person is here and they should just be thankful there baby is alive!

At Monday, October 06, 2008 6:37:00 AM, Anonymous kayla said...

my son was born with esophageal atresia and down syndrome a VERY rare birth defect, he also has other compilations as well, he is now 10 months old and we are blessed by god to have such a wonderful little miracle


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